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‘Watching Syria Is Like Watching a Slow-Motion Train Wreck’

June 13, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Russia that its interests in Syria will be harmed if it does not attempt to stop bloodshed. Jeffrey Brown discusses the crisis' ties to strained diplomacy with Michele Dunne of the Atlantic Council's Center for the Middle East and Dimitri Simes of the Center for the National Interest.
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JEFFREY BROWN: More now from Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council’s Center for the Middle East. She’s served at the State Department and on the National Security Council staff. And Dimitri Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest, a foreign policy think tank, he’ll join us in just a moment.

Michele Dunne, let me start with you. What is going on? How serious is this diplomatic conflict between the U.S. and the Russians?

MICHELE DUNNE, director, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, The Atlantic Council: Well, there’s been a lot of tension, of course, between the United States and for some time now over Syria.

And I think that the escalating situation within Syria itself, even in the past couple of weeks, we have seen the level of brutality, the brutality against women and children. And the weapons being used — I mean, we’re seeing now helicopter gunships used against civilian populations, bombardment of civilian populations, accompanied by atrocities by militias.

All of this, I think, is putting the United States under extreme pressure. And this is one of the reasons why I think Secretary Clinton called out the Russians and said, you’re contributing to this by giving the Syrians these kind of weapons.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dimitri Simes, I see you have joined us. Thanks for getting through the traffic to us.

What do you make of what’s going on with the Russians and the U.S.? What’s behind it?

DIMITRI SIMES, Center for the National Interest: Well, I completely understand that Secretary Clinton is under a lot of pressure. And, also, the situation on the ground in Syria is not just unfortunate. It is tragic.

The question is, what do we want Moscow to do and how can we get from Moscow what we need? And my concern is that public statements denouncing Moscow, just on the eve of a meeting between President Obama and President Putin — the meeting is supposed to take next Monday in Mexico — that that may be a good way to embarrass the Russians, but not a very effective way to get their cooperation.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is — Dimitri Simes, what is the Russian interest here? Explain that to an American audience.

DIMITRI SIMES: Well, I was in Moscow about a week ago, and I had the chance to talk to several Russian officials.

And my impression that they increasingly were viewing President Assad as a liability. They didn’t like to have President Assad to be a major obstacle in their relations with the United States, the European Union, the Arab League, and Israel.

At the same time, Assad for many years was viewed as a Russian client. Several Russian clients have lost their positions, and sometimes, in the case of Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gadhafi, they lost their lives. And the Russians are reluctant to allow President Assad to be overthrown without some kind of a peaceful arrangement more comprehensive than just his departure. And they, obviously, insist that they would be a part of that arrangement.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Michele Dunne, this calling out, as you referred to, it was fairly harsh language. That expresses the some kind of frustration? Can the U.S. act without’s Russia’s cooperation?

MICHELE DUNNE: Well, the United States basically can’t act in the U.N. Security Council and get a U.N. Security Council blessing for international action in Syria without Russia’s cooperation, of course, because Russia can use its veto there.

I think, look, watching Syria is like watching a slow-motion train wreck. You can see this thing relentlessly moving toward an uglier and uglier situation. It’s been going that way for more than a year now. The United States has tried the nice way with Russia, has tried working with Russia to come up with some sort of a solution and so forth.

And it’s just not happening. And, as I said, the pressure is building for — towards some kind of international intervention. And. . .

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you see? What are the options?

MICHELE DUNNE: Well, I mean, there are various different options that, you know, would basically create zones of Syria in which the Syrian government no longer has control and so forth.

I think for a long time people were hoping that Russia would act to speak to perhaps others within the Syrian regime to bring about some sort of a change. There’s been talk of a Yemen-type solution, in which others in the regime would displace al-Assad and there could be a peaceful change leading toward a democratic transition. But so far, Russia just hasn’t been motivated or maybe it can’t do it, but it isn’t happening.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, which do you think it is, Dimitri Simes, from your talks with them?

Were there any — was there talk of any solutions possible that could possibly be accepted by the Russians?

DIMITRI SIMES: Well, I basically agree with everything Michele Dunne has said, but look at the situation from the Russian perspective.

First, they have a new president, Vladimir Putin, who most certainly doesn’t view himself as a little puppy who will be treated nicely by President Obama, by the American administration and, because of that, he would change all Russian policies and would kind of abandon Russian interests as he understands them.

They also do feel that the Yemeni solution may be a good beginning, and they are prepared to pursue it. Mind you, in Yemen, however, President Saleh, it wasn’t easy to persuade him to leave. He had agreed to leave only after he was seriously wounded, went for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, then in the United States.

So it’s a process to persuade somebody like President Assad to leave power, particularly if you take into account, as Michele Dunne has said, that the Russian leverage is real, but limited. There is also Iran. And they obviously do not want to see President Assad to go.

So, I think that what the Russians would like to see is some kind of an international process which would lead to President Assad’s departure, but there would be no fundamental change in the regime, exactly as it happened in Yemen.

Let me say, however, again something Michele Dunne said which I find quite interesting, and I don’t know whether she had it in mind, but perhaps she did, namely, that nobody said we’re not entitled to act without U.N. Security Council blessing. And as one official in Moscow put it to me, well, look, if the United States feels very strongly that force has to be used and is determined to act, let the United States and NATO do it without U.N. Security Council blessing, the way it has happened in the case of Kosovo, the way it has happened in Iraq. . .

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. No, no, finish. I’m sorry.

DIMITRI SIMES: . . . the way it has happened in Iraq.

The Russians obviously would criticize that. They wouldn’t want a decision which doesn’t give a role to the U.N. Security Council. But if that is the only way to resolve the situation, I think they would be prepared to live with that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me ask Michele Dunne.

Briefly, respond to that. Is that what you had in mind?

MICHELE DUNNE: Well, look, it may come to that.

Of course, you know, the Obama administration is extremely, extremely unwilling to do that. But we just can’t exclude that possibility that the situation in Syria will get that unbearable. And that’s where we come to Russian interests. We may come to that moment where the United States and others in the international community say to Russia, we know you have interests in Syria. Do you want to secure them? Because you have to act. Otherwise, we will.

And that day might come, as I said, a slow-motion train moving in that direction very, very painfully.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Michele Dunne, Dimitri Simes, thanks so much.

DIMITRI SIMES: Thank you.

MICHELE DUNNE: You’re welcome.